Performative activism, MLK and the BET Awards: A look back at the week in race and culture

(CNN)This is going to turn into CNN's weekly newsletter about race, culture and their intersections. Created by Leah Asmelash and Brandon Tensley, this newsletter hopes to offer a window into how history can, and should, inform people's lives.

But this isn't a dry history textbook. Our aim is to help readers engage in the challenging conversations on race by introducing them to more contemporary pieces of culture that will entertain and illuminate as much as they educate and inform.
For this week, we highlight Hulu removing a supposed blackface episode, revisit Martin Luther King Jr.'s final essay and take a look at the BET Awards, which were exactly what we needed.

    This week in culture

    Leah: Did you hear about Hulu pulling that episode of "The Golden Girls," with "blackface"? Any thoughts?
    Brandon: Yes! I did hear about that -- and I think that it's BANANAS.
    L: OK, explain! So many TV shows have been doing this. What makes GG different?
    B: For one, in that particular GG episode, the characters -- Rose and Blanche -- aren't actually in blackface. They're wearing mud masks and freak out because they think that somebody might mistake the masks for blackface. The episode is about white anxiety when it comes to race.
    Hulu's decision seems like a reflexive one instead of a rigorous one that might prod audiences to think more deeply about race, or about the enduring impact and influence of cultural artifacts.
    L: Right! It just feels like Hulu missed the point? They're pulling the episode because they think that it'll get backlash, without doing any real grappling with the issue. Kind of like ... the NBA saying that it will paint Black Lives Matter on its courts?
    B: Lordt. Yeah, I sort of rolled my eyes when I read that announcement. It's not that visible signs of solidarity aren't important. It's that, too often, that's where support for a marginalized community ends -- with a cute gesture. I'm curious to see if the NBA, which historically has been a very activist-minded organization, supports the Black Lives Matter movement in other, more substantial ways. But what are your thoughts?
    L: I agree. So much of this moment feels super performative to me. Some NBA players have asked not to resume the season in light of the protests, and yet the commissioner is forging ahead -- ignoring these complaints (presumably because of money). There's also a lot of dark irony in the fact that the majority-Black NBA will be exposing its players to the coronavirus on courts that literally say that their lives matter. It's like the NBA is activist-y when it suits it. Kind of like how that Houston realtor group said that it'd stop using the phrase "master" in reference to bedrooms and bathrooms, when that's not really the main problem people are worried about.
    B: Are there any other recent examples that jump out at you as cringey?
    L: WHERE TO BEGIN. I'm a sports fan, so I keep going back to the Washington NFL team, which is quite literally named after a Native slur. On Black Out Tuesday, they released their little statement saying that Black Lives Matter, but if they truly believed that Black lives matter, they should believe that Native lives matter, too. Which makes me think: How can you say BLM when your name is a slur? One doesn't match the other.
    B: My pessimistic takeaway from all this is that these sorts of moves are more about protecting brands than about supporting lives. Show is nice. Substance is better. As so many people have been saying, this moment feels different. Hopefully the responses from organizations will be different, too.

    'A Testament of Hope'

    If you think that the ongoing protests are just about police killing Black men and women, you're missing the point. They're about so much more: about ending mass incarceration, about investing in housing programs. You can't separate one from the other.
    A good place to start to understand how everything is interconnected is with this essay from Martin Luther King Jr., "A Testament of Hope," which made the same point in 1968. Because, alas, we've been fighting the same fight for more than half a century.